The Ins and Outs of Earwax
Everyone has earwax! Some have more, and some have less; but what seems like an annoying bodily secretion actually has a wonderful function in the ear canal. Earwax is secreted by small glands in the ear canal and has a protective function. It stops dust, foreign particles, and dirt from reaching the thin and sensitive eardrum. In addition, earwax has antibacterial properties that help to stop infections and fungi from taking root in the ear canal. It also serves as a protective layer, providing a barrier against water for sensitive skin inside the ear canal.
How Is Earwax Supposed to Come Out?
The shape and position of the ear canal, and even the placement of the hairs inside the ear canal, are designed to slowly and gently move earwax towards the opening in the outer ear. The tiny hairs in the ear canal are positioned with their roots towards the ear drum and their ends towards the ear opening. Together with jaw movements, like yawning, chewing, and sucking, these hairs help to move the moist earwax from deep inside the ear canal to the opening. When wax appears in the opening of the outer ear, it is usually dry and flaky from exposure to air.
When wax gets trapped in the ear canal, it can cause pain, discomfort, temporary hearing loss, a ringing sensation in the ears, and even dizziness. Some people have small ear canals, but a lot of earwax, leading to a build-up or blockage. Ironically, a habit of using cotton swabs, such as Q-tips, to clear earwax from deep within in the ear canal can cause a blockage.
In babies and small children, the ear canal is so short that you can easily perforate an eardrum without meaning to when using cotton swabs. The best thing to do with wax deep inside the ear canal is: nothing!
There is an old saying that goes, “Never put something smaller than your elbow in your ear.” When you insert cotton swabs or other objects into your child’s ear, you upset the small hairs in the ear canal, which are supposed to help clear wax from the ear canal; yet you are pressing the wax farther into the ear canal. The best practice is to gently clear any wax in the opening of the outer ear with a soft, warm washcloth, or your fingertip.
Remedies for Wax Build Up
Wax should only be removed from the inner ear canal if it interferes with hearing, or if it obstructs the view of a doctor who is trying to determine whether a child has an ear infection or not. Never treat your child for wax build up if you are not absolutely sure he has a wax blockage in his ear. Small children can’t tell what their ears feel like; and what seems to you like a wax problem might actually be a perforated eardrum or ear infection without fever. Rather, consult your doctor to make sure your child does not have underlying ear infection.
If your child has a wax build up, the doctor will soften the wax with oil or fluid and remove it with a tool designed for wax removal, called a curette. For older children, your doctor might recommend using a solution at home designed to loosen earwax, like Debrox or Murine Ear, over the course of a couple of days, until the wax is loose enough to come out by itself.